Nature Journal: A Backyard Adventure.
By Savannah Allen. Viking. $18.99.
We Play Baseball Mr. DeMille? By Mark
Angelo. Illustrated by Patricia and Robin DeWitt. FriesenPress. $21.99.
The past always seems to look rosier in hindsight, and some children’s
books take advantage of that to create or re-create stories steeped in
nostalgia. Savannah Allen’s The Nature
Journal mixes the sweet scent of older times with the time-tested notion of
a young child’s dreaming to create a lovely little paean to the close
relationship within a father-and-son family unit. The boy, Tim, follows in his
father’s footsteps by enjoying small outdoor excursions, during which he keeps
journals of his mundane-but-fascinating discoveries: flowers, worms, rocks,
insects, and so forth. There is nothing extraordinary about any of these
“finds,” but there is something special in doing what his father did in the
past. In fact, Tim prefers to do his explorations with his father; but one day his dad just can’t join him – he has
work and chores to do – so Tim decides to go through his father’s actual
journals, which are stored in their home’s attic and “full of the adventures
that his dad took before Tim was born.” While reading the journals – which
Allen ensures look a lot like the ones Tim himself keeps – Tim eventually falls
asleep, and sure enough, he dreams of far-flung journeys with his dad. Those
wordless travels, each illustrated as a double-page spread, take up much of the
book and are filled with a child’s notion of visiting an exotic forest, a
desert encampment, undersea caves, mountains – all places far removed from the
quotidian backyard of Tim’s home. After awakening, Tim “scribbled down his
dreams as fast as he could” so as not to forget any of the delightful times.
And soon afterwards, Tim’s dad finishes his adult-things-to-do, apologizes for
not having more time for Tim that day, and arranges to go on a real adventure
with him the next day – in the backyard, where both can make new nature-journal
memories. It is an open question whether the make-believe adventures to
fascinating realms, or the real ones a few feet from the house, are more
meaningful – or maybe not so open, since Tim’s smiles are even broader when
hanging out with his father than they were while imagining all the places that
the two of them visited in dreamland. A simple and lovely little paean to
father-son bonding over a shared experience, The Nature Journal nicely shows ways in which kids and parents can
make and enjoy special times together even if they have no way to take trips to
the forests, deserts, mountains and oceans.
Can We Play Baseball Mr. DeMille? is a backyard story of a different sort, and a real-world one at that: it is a memoir in the form of a children’s book. Mark Angelo was seven years old in 1958 when he and some neighborhood friends developed a fanatical devotion to the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, which had moved from the East Coast to California the previous year. The problem the kids faced was that they wanted desperately to play baseball themselves, but had nowhere to do so. However, there is a huge lawn at a massive house nearby – reachable through a hole in the surrounding hedge – and the kids think that lawn would be just perfect for some ball games. So they sneak in “one hot afternoon in late June, when we were feeling especially courageous,” and play some ball. And they keep doing that until, inevitably, they are caught by the gardener and tossed unceremoniously out. What to do? The only possible solution is to ask the owner of the home – who happens to be the world-famous film director and producer Cecil B. DeMille – if they can please, please, please use a little bit of his huge lawn area for baseball now and then. Deputized to go to the palatial home and ask that question, Angelo recounts what happened and how enormously surprised and pleased he was when DeMille actually agreed to let them play. DeMille (1881-1959) died not long afterwards, and the land was sold off for homebuilding, so the permission did not last all that long. But then, presumably the childhood dreams of becoming professional baseball players did not last that long, either. Still, the whole story makes for a lovely bit of time travel to an era when major-league baseball was something other than a 100% money grab for entitled millionaires. Angelo’s storytelling is nicely paced (although the absence of a comma after “baseball” in the book’s title is decidedly peculiar). The illustrations, however, are less successful: the impressions of real people (including once-famous baseball players and DeMille) are well done, but the portraits of the neighborhood kids and other characters (such as the gardener and butler) are oddly proportioned in terms of head size, facial features and (especially) hands and fingers. The book looks as if illustrators Patricia and Robin DeWitt could not quite decide whether they wanted to do realistic renderings or comic-style art, so they compromised by creating pictures combining bits of each. Still, it is the story rather than the visuals that will appeal to 21st-century children who have any sense of (and interest in) old-style baseball and, for that matter, old-style moviemaking. There may not be many such kids anymore, but for those who do still gravitate to these topics, Angelo’s personal history will be a highly enjoyable saunter down memory lane.